If you want to reach the SDGs, reach young children affected by crises

Based on significant evidence that early childhood interventions can help children overcome traumatic events, GPE and partners invite governments, donors and implementers to work with them to prioritize the inclusion of early childhood services as a standard component of the humanitarian response in crisis contexts.

September 13, 2021 by Jennifer Vu, UNICEF, Emily Garin, Sesame Workshop, Elana Banin, International Rescue Committee , and Christin McConnell, Global Partnership for Education
4 minutes read
Sabbir, 6 years old, is happily showing his drawing at the BRAC Pre-Primary School at Korail, Dhaka. Credit: UNICEF
Sabbir, 6 years old, is happily showing his drawing at the BRAC Pre-Primary School at Korail, Dhaka.

Nearly 25% of pre-primary-aged children live in countries affected by emergencies and only 1 in 3 children in these contexts was enrolled in pre-primary education in 2019 (UNICEF). According to a recent Theirworld report, the situation may be even more dire for refugee children, for whom early childhood education (ECE) coverage is likely lower than in their host communities.

Children in crisis and conflict settings face compounded risks to their healthy development, stemming from multiple adverse experiences, which may include exposure to violence, forced displacement, migration and resettlement in new settings, and poverty.

Prolonged, severe adversity puts these children at even greater risk of toxic stress, leading to short- and long-term negative impacts on their physical, mental, cognitive and emotional development (Center on the Developing Child, 2007).

Early childhood interventions work

The good news is that the right investments can make a huge difference – not just for young children, but for the larger communities in which they live.

Long-term research has shown that quality support in the early years for young children and their caregivers can provide tremendous returns – up to 13% per year – through improved education, health and economic outcomes.

There is significant evidence that early childhood interventions can help children overcome traumatic events.

There is a smaller, but growing, body of research about the specific ECD approaches that work best in crisis contexts. This evidence base makes it clear that early childhood education and learning opportunities must be available to all, including during acute and protracted crisis contexts.

This is vital to both building resilience and enabling children to fulfill their learning potential while setting them on course for success in primary school and beyond.

ECD sorely underfunded during crises

Despite evidence that early childhood interventions are both essential and effective, they remain dramatically underfunded. Globally, ECD accounts for just over 3% of development assistance going to crisis-affected countries, with only a sliver of that specifically allocated for nurturing care and pre-primary education.

In humanitarian assistance, only 2% of funding is dedicated to early childhood with no accounting for pre-primary.

This problem is particularly acute in emergency contexts: as reflected by ECD’s absence in many refugee and humanitarian response plans (HRPs) and the limited funding it receives even when it is included.

A 2018 review of 26 active HRPs found that only 9% of the early learning interventions recommended by the Nurturing Care Framework were included. Nearly half of HRPs did not address learning or education for children under the age of five, while only 30% of plans specifically mentioned pre-primary or early childhood care and education.

Further, a research brief from the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti indicates that despite some countries making concrete efforts to support preschoolers and their families, the pandemic has reinforced the finding that the ECE subsector remains largely absent from humanitarian responses.

A call to action

If we hope to meet our global goals or, more importantly, our responsibility to help children and their communities thrive, this pattern cannot continue.

That’s why we are inviting governments, donors and implementers to work with us to prioritize the inclusion of early childhood services as a standard component of the humanitarian response in all contexts.


  • We call on host countries to effectively include pre-primary refugee children in ECE programs within national education systems and multi-year education sector plans, to ensure pathways to primary education access for pre-primary refugee children;
  • Utilizing and adapting frameworks and tools such as the Nurturing Care Framework, ECE Accelerator Toolkit, and Improving Early Childhood Development guidelines, we call on education implementers and partners to embed early childhood education and development services in humanitarian response plans and education sector plans;
  • Recognizing the critical role of parents and communities in enabling early and lifelong learning, we call on education partners to increase parental and caregiver engagement through early childhood development services planning;
  • Intentionally establishing clear links between humanitarian and development funding and programming, we call on education investors to commit to multi-year predictable funding levels from the emergency phase onwards; and
  • Recognizing the importance of early learning foundations, we call on investors to strengthen alignment with national education systems and increase funding to ECE – reaching a target of 10 percent of education funding to ECE where relevant and ensuring funding is reaching refugee, migrant, and displaced populations.


Want to learn more about early childhood education in crisis and conflict settings? Join UNICEF, International Rescue Committee, Sesame Workshop and the Global Partnership for Education for a webinar on ‘Accelerating Early Childhood Education in Crisis and Conflict Settings’, September 15, 2021, 9 – 10am Eastern Time.

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